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Indigenous ghosts and the supernatural | Smithsonian Voices

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“Coyote and Turkey” is a haunting traditional tribal story.
Illustration courtesy of Weshoyot Alvitre

I was brought up by my maternal grandparents. My grandfather was a thoroughbred Isanti Dakota from Nebraska. My grandmother was a pureblood Okay Owingeh Pueblo from New Mexico. They were my connection to culture and history from the earliest days of booking and beyond.

Every night when I was very young we had a storytelling ritual where they shared stories that had been passed on to them or that they had personally experienced. Some of these stories were humorous, others taught life lessons. But my favorites were the scary stories I asked over and over again. Thinking back to my childhood, these stories left many questions in my mind that had remained unexplained until now.

“Stories of the unknown take many forms and tell inexplicable, sometimes horrific things. Some are about demons or evil spirits,” says writer and storyteller Dan SaSuWeh Jones (Ponca).

“Others deal with inanimate objects, like glowing orbs, apparitions, or even dolls that take the breath of life. In this book, I have divided the Native American ghost world into five categories: ‘Ghosts’, “Spirits,” “Witches,” “Monsters,” and “The Supernatural,” to give a clearer, more defined picture of what you may encounter, from an invisible noise to a hideous face to maybe something that no one else others have never known. ”

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In Living Ghosts and Mysterious Monsters: Scary Stories of American Indians, 32 short stories of tribal nations are told in startling and frightening detail.

Book cover courtesy of Scholastic Inc.

The supernatural aspects of American Indians are not normally shared with the outside world. Superstition and tribal protocols prevent many stories from becoming public domain. Recently I read a book that picked up where my grandparents’ scary stories left off: native tricksters; shapeshifters, skin walkers, and entities that thrive in the shadows of darkness. In Living Ghosts and Mysterious Monsters: Scary Stories About Native Americans (Scholastic Press, 166 p., $ 26.99 and $ 12.99) Dan SaSuWeh Jones (Ponca Nation) writer and storyteller, and Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva) illustrator, weave ancient and contemporary spooky stories of tribal groups in Canada, from the United States and Mexico. Thirty-two short stories are told in vivid, chilling detail and gathered from the thriving tradition of Indigenous ghost storytelling. Tribal definitions and their meanings are explained to help give the reader valuable information to preface each story.

Stories of the unknown take many forms and tell inexplicable, sometimes horrifying, things.

In an era when the Internet, social media, and cell phones weren’t the primary means of communication, Indigenous people were eager to share good stories. Winter was particularly chosen as the main storytelling season, as tribal community groups did not travel and had to stay indoors for long periods of time in inclement weather.

In the Western Hemisphere, business stories are an integral part of Indigenous culture, a standard that is still enforced by modern Indigenous peoples. At the end of this book, the writer gives credit in detail of how each of his stories was obtained. As an Aboriginal writer, this consideration made me feel good that these stories were obtained and are being conveyed “in the right way”. That being said… wait until nightfall, grab the book, and get ready to step into the world of native ghosts and the supernatural.

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Dan SaSuWeh Jones, writer and storyteller

Photo courtesy of Scholastic Inc.

Dan SaSuWeh Jones is the former president of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma Indians and a member of the Producers Guild of America. He is a filmmaker who has produced works for Sesame Street, NBC, TBS and other national and international networks. He worked as an honorary imaginator and consultant for the Walt Disney Company’s Disney America theme park and as a field producer for the television miniseries. 500 nations, produced by Kevin Costner. As a bronze sculptor, he was a finalist in the competition for the American Indian Veterans Memorial at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Washington DC Mall. He sits at the House of Warriors, a traditional society of Ponca warriors. He has been a storyteller and consultant for National Geographic Encyclopedia of American Indians, 2019.

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Weshoyot Alvitre, illustrator

Photo courtesy of Scholastic Inc.

Weshoyot Alvitre is an author and illustrator from the Tongva tribe of Southern California. She currently resides with her husband and two children in Ventureno Chumash territory in Ventura, California. Her work focuses on an Indigenous lens and voice on projects ranging from children’s books to adult graphic novels. She was recently published as an artist in Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of Conestoga, written by Lee Francis 4 and edited by Will Fenton; At the base of the mountains written by Traci Sorell; and was artistic director of the video game “When Rivers Were Trails”. She enjoys spinning thread and collecting antiques.


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